Studying in Germany, without leaving China
Interview with Yang Xiuqing
Aug 16, 2013
Highlight in the statement of the Chinese Academy of Art, Hangzhou: the „Chinesisch-Deutsche Kunstakademie“ (CDK) and it’s president Yang Xiuqing. Photo © Egon Chemaitis

The “Chinesisch-Deutsche Kunstakademie” (Chinese-German Art Academy, CDK) in Hangzhou, a cooperation between the China Academy of Art (CAA) Hangzhou and Universität der Künste (Berlin University of the Arts, UDK) Berlin, opened in fall 2006. Since then it has offered Chinese students a two-year Master’s degree in Visual Arts (subjects: painting, media art, sculpture) and Design (visual communication, industrial design, architecture). The UDK is responsible for two thirds of the courses, the CAA for one third. Students complete a three-month study trip to Berlin before starting their thesis project, whereby the examination is in German. Tuition fees amount to 50,000 yuan, around 6,000 euros, per year. In its first year the DAAD, the German Academic Exchange Service, helped fund the CDK. Since then it has been responsible for funding itself. Egon Chemaitis, designer and until 2011 professor of design fundamentals at the UDK Berlin, who himself has taught at the CDK since 2007 and chairs the joint examination board, spoke to CDK President Yang Xiuqing about the cooperation.

Egon Chemaitis: Ms. Yang, after several years of negotiations the Chinesisch-Deutsche Kunstakademie opened in fall 2006. Has the CDK evolved as planned?

Yang Xiuqing: The project has become an unexpected success. We originally planned only one course of study with painting, media art and sculpture. Suddenly we had to offer three more subjects, namely visual communication, architecture and product design – we weren’t expecting that. These subjects are highly relevant; we need them in China.

Do you still think the concept of offering a German Master’s degree in China is an attractive and important option, including as an alternative to studying in Germany?

Yang Xiuqing: Undoubtedly, of course it is an important program! This project primarily has two target groups: On the one hand, the middle class, which an annual disposable income of 15,000 to 20,000 euros, and on the other working-class families who would be highly unlikely to be able to finance going to Germany anyway. To study abroad students have to put 40,000 euros on the table. To study at the CDK they only have to pay around half that.

There are two more arguments I have heard more frequently from applicants. First, they had no idea whether a study program abroad would really be better. And second it would be easier for them to find other options here if they were disappointed.

Yang Xiuqing: Yes, there is no question that the CDK offers a real alternative to studying in Germany. As I said, it is above all middle-class children who are interested in us. The middle class is the backbone of China, and they want their children to be well educated.

The middle class is also a key target group because it is more dynamic than the working class, and because it actively influences China’s development. It is important that these young people are well educated and sensibly steer the processes of change.

Yang Xiuqing: Our students are primarily the children of civil servants, small and medium-scale entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, etc. The tuition fees of 6,000 euros are not that high, relatively speaking. Even a Bachelor’s degree costs around 7,000 euros.

So, Chinese students can complete a German Master’s degree in China. That comes at a price, and not just a financial one. For at the end of the course students must defend their Master’s thesis in German. For the CDK this means organizing language courses, conducting tests and providing translators. Is this not too expensive and time-consuming?

Yang Xiuqing: Internationalization also means communication, and for that we all need certain skills, something which is not possible without a knowledge of languages. We didn’t want to choose English as a foreign language. Here in China English is taught very differently, methodically speaking. The language is “moody”, as we say. The Chinese have had enough of it; they don’t want to learn English. We thought: If we are cooperating with Germany, we also want to include the German language. Learning German is like a lesson in logical thinking, in how to present facts clearly.

Learning German also means restricting yourself to a much smaller, more strongly demarcated cultural region, while English has a far greater range, including North America, Great Britain and Australia, for instance.

Yang Xiuqing: English teaching in China is poor. After four years of instruction school students still can’t communicate. This makes them lose interest. They have very little motivation to learn English. When they hear that they need to learn German here, their reaction is: Oh, that’s new, I’ll try that. Their motivation is higher and German instruction is not weighed down by bad experiences from the start.

The teachers use German in their classes. Every word, every sentence, whether written or spoken, has to be translated. Communication is always indirect. Meaning: the translators’ qualifications, their skills in terms of both language and specialist knowledge, are of crucial importance – a dilemma or just part of the game?

Yang Xiuqing: Even a good translation is probably only 70 to 80 per cent true to the original. That’s the way it is. Even when Merkel and Xi Jinping talk to each other, they won’t get more than 80 per cent.

That surely also depends on the languages that have to be translated. The question as to dilemma or just part of the game refers to something else. What I meant was: My knowledge of translation work requires that I speak differently, that I think about how well what I’m saying can be translated. And: Not everything is a question of translation, particularly not between Chinese and German. It is not least the culture that needs to be translated!

Yang Xiuqing: Indeed. You’ll never get a 100 percent translation of culture.

The CDK is symmetrically structured with the two areas of study Art and Design each with three subjects, in a very classic system. Has this proven to be effective?

Yang Xiuqing: We want to offer more subjects in future. It doesn’t have to stay the way it is now. We need to review everything, replace some subjects with new ones, adapt existing ones. At the moment we have a classic system, but if we don’t change anything we’ll either get boring or overtaken by reality.

The CDK is designed to accommodate 40 graduates a year. The number of applicants has remained stable in recent years, and this year even rose. What can be done to increase the number of applicants?

Yang Xiuqing: The fact is, the fees are a financial obstacle. Many families simply can’t afford to send their children to the CDK. Income is high in the economically successful regions in the South. Other regions lag far behind. The people are often still very poor. Another reason is that Master’s courses at Chinese universities are free. And study places are of course not evenly distributed across the country. There are plenty of options for studying in and around Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. So we have few applicants from these areas. But we are the number-one address in Zhejiang province.

As I see it, the CDK is a pretty unique construct, a rare and bold educational enterprise. What makes it interesting for the CAA and the Ministry?

Yang Xiuqing: Well, universities have to report to the Ministry of Education every year. The CAA always presents the CDK as special proof of achievement and receives a great deal of recognition for its international activities. We really are a highlight in the CAA’s track record. The CDK is simply not one of those plans that rarely make it past the drawing-board stage. We have made the CDK a reality!

Does the CDK set an example or is it rather an exotic study format for an educational niche?

Yang Xiuqing: No, the CDK really has concrete value in the educational system of Zhejiang province. The Ministry of Education always proudly points out that we have long since successfully institutionalized international knowledge transfer.

Many graduates now work as teachers at other universities. Will they be able to give the art and design courses there a “flavor” of the CDK?

Yang Xiuqing: Undoubtedly, I am convinced of it, and I know it is true from many conversations. It begins even at the interview stage. Our graduates behave differently, they are clear and self-confident. Our graduates frequently become key figures in their fields of work; owing to their diverse skills they quickly take on managerial duties. Many now work in teaching, are themselves teachers, and pass on their experiences from the CDK. It is a sign of quality when our graduates are hired specifically for positions of great responsibility.

What medium-term perspectives do you see for the CDK?

Yang Xiuqing: When I think of the combination of Germany and design, there is no question that we will be continuing with it. But when I think of fashion or jewelry design, I think of France and Italy. If I consider an expansion, I also have to think about how to integrate such subjects. We now have the Chinesisch-Deutsche Kunstakademie, in future we are hoping to make it a Chinese-European one. But we will continue to view the CDK as forming the heart of our collaborative efforts. I would like to keep product design, painting and visual communication as core subjects; as for the rest, we’ll have to see.

Interpreter: Xiao Yi Liu-Cuk, Architecture graduate

Thought in German, but made in and for China. Photo © Egon Chemaitis
Maybe the national bicylce of China of tomorrow? Photo © Egon Chemaitis
Zhang Ziyi, I’ll catch you by bike. Photo © Egon Chemaitis
Egon Chemaitis ( with glasses in his hands) and his students. Photo © Egon Chemaitis